Listen First, Speak Later
/ Author: Dennis Perrin
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Listen First, Speak Later

Whether in day-to-day conflict management, collective agreement negotiations, or understanding our roles in a world pandemic, we need to harness the power of listening

By Dennis Perrin, Prairies Director

You’ve probably heard the expression speak now or forever hold your peace. There is definitely some wisdom to that saying but also to the expression listen first, speak later.

A number of months ago, I was grocery shopping and observed a conflict break out between two shoppers. One woman was a young mother who had four children. She was using two shopping carts, one to hold their groceries and the other to hold her kids.

The oldest child was able to push the cart with the other kids in it while mom handled the grocery cart with the groceries. I thought it was quite cute, and practical at the same time.

But the other shopper didn’t feel the same way. She quickly berated the young mother and accused her of not taking proper care of her kids.

The young mother was having none of this, and an all-out shouting match soon ensued in the produce aisle. The shouting would subside for a few minutes only to resume in another aisle. Neither was able to let it go, and they eventually continued the argument right out into the parking lot.

As I reflected on the experience, it was clear to me that neither was interested in listening to hear where the other was coming from. Unfortunately, that seems to be the norm in our society these days, rather than the exception.

A social awakening is happening in our society right now, and for good reason. Protests on racial inequality throughout the world have marked that our society is not where it needs to be.

One common thread is that in many aspects we don’t want to listen to each other. Many of us are quickly compelled to speak—or shout—without bothering to understand the other side’s perspective.

I have always respected those who are quick to listen and slow to speak. Listening before speaking allows us to hear the other point of view, learn about the situation, and formulate an opinion before responding.

One of the things we hear today about recent events is that silence is compliance. I can agree with that statement if we choose to remain in silence forever. But far too many voices on all sides choose to speak without fully understanding the depth and complexity of the issues at hand.

Between the ongoing pandemic and the recent protests over the death of George Floyd, there is no question that we are living in turbulent times. An approach that begins with a listening ear and a desire to understand will ultimately set us up for success in tackling the complex problems we face today.

Workplace relations are no different. We need to go into conflict-fuelled situations where we start by listening and then form an action plan.

Whether in day-to-day conflict management, collective agreement negotiations, or understanding our roles in a world pandemic, we need to harness the power of listening.

My mother always told me I was given two ears and one mouth for a reason. I’m still trying to learn that lesson as I reflect on the grocery store escapades.

As I watch others rush to judgment and speak before listening, I’m reminded that this impulse resides in me too. We’ll all need to curb that impulse and listen first if we’re going to understand each other and improve our society during the turbulent days ahead.

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